Romania: Daia – Bear Feet

June – August 2016

The storm bells have stopped ringing. The sky is nearly blue!

Daia church

Up the hills we go again, seeing Daia in context.

Daia from East Transect

It’s steep. Joints click and backpacks sag. Water flasks empty and hats fight against the sun. These hills are hard work for a human hiker, but easy for a bear – not that they are hurrying when there are so many anthills to investigate. I feel slightly hostile to ants after last week’s trail camera fiasco, but to a bear, they are a welcome dinner.

There’s not much left of an anthill after a bear has razed it.

Dug up anthill.jpg

Mammal surveys often involve playing detective – diggings, hair, even bones. Some tracks are familiar to English eyes; this, for example, is a red fox. I have a video explaining how to identify fox footprints here.

Fox track

Then again, it’s been many centuries since anyone in England saw a fox footprint right next to a bear’s massive track. I’ve highlighted the footprints here but they were easy enough to observe in real life.

Fox track and bear track

So, ever higher into bear country, passing a barbed wire fence decorated with bear fur – it passed under the barrier without hesitation, no doubt thinking of yet more tasty ants.

Good news! All ten trail cameras are safe and unstolen. They tell their own story of the week.

As usual, plenty of roe deer trotted by.

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Wild boar is a more unusual catch; they’re not rare, but for whatever reason the cameras weren’t lucky before Daia.

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And…

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After six weeks in the field, I’ll take 80% of a bear!

Yes, it would have been nice if it had stepped just a bit to the left, but that’s the way it goes. And even bear feet are rather awesome to see 🙂

Romania: Daia – The Winged Ones

June – August 2016

Daia is still in a questionable mood. Clouds roll inwards from the mountains.

Daia mist

High on the transects, the trail cameras keep a lonely vigil in the mist.

Daia up high2

Weather has a low impact on large mammal surveys, unless the rain is so heavy that it obliterates the tracks. The bird team are warier than me; their standard method is to set mist nets, very fine netting that captures birds with low risk of harm. Using mist nets in rainy conditions is not recommended for many reasons, and given that they take time to set up, it is easier to have them near camp when the weather is changeable.

Which means that the rest of us can have a look too.

Baby great tits

Red-backed shrikes are abundant.

Red backed shrike2

And a great spotted woodpecker is a nice surprise.

GSW

All the birds are fitted with an identification ring and released to continue their day.

They are far from the only animals in camp. A convolvulus hawk moth searches for nectar in the drizzle.

Hummingbird hawkmoth

Even when the wildlife is hiding, the farm kittens melt everyone’s hearts.

Daia kitten

Through it all, their wild forest cousins move noiselessly in the misty hills, fending for themselves amongst the bears.

Romania: Daia – Storm Bells Ringing

June – August 2016

I’m not sure what Daia means in Romanian, but in my mental dictionary it is ‘authentic, beautiful, rustic, irresistible’ 🙂

Meadows at Daia

It is hard to remember that all the world used to be like this. No car noise – merely the sweet chirps of sparrows, and the whinnying of horses.

The streets are old, and stray dogs play in them.

Daia streets4

This is Transylvania at its purest. Daia is everything that a medieval village ought to be. And the transects! If there’s a more beautiful corner of agricultural Europe, I haven’t found it.

Daia transects1

Walking in these meadows is to be lost in a fragrant dream. Crushed thyme infuses the air with every step.

But like all the best parts of the world, Daia is moody – the weather spins on a dime from suffocating hot to something entirely else:

July 29th

Hear the loud alarum bells– Brazen bells! 
Bells, bells, bells! What a tale their terror tells of despair! How they clang, and clash, and roar! What a horror they outpour on the bosom of the palpitating air! Yet the ear, it fully knows, by the twanging and the clanging, how the danger ebbs and flows… (Edgar Allan Poe)

Bells cry from the church tower. Not continuously, but after each peel of thunder, and today there are many. I’m told it’s a ritual; people here believe it will drive the storm away.

The light levels are dropping although it is only 5pm, and wind is licking around the tent corners, but so far no rain. The thunder is more than weather; it sounds like the sky itself is rending like a –

Plastic sheet. I think that’s what I meant to write. In the middle of that sentence the wind slammed into my tent like a tidal wave. I was ready (in the sense of having footwear donned) so grabbed my laptop bag, slammed the laptop into it while running, and bolted for shelter. These clouds are painting grey blotches, circling overhead like aerial hunting creatures.  It’s like being inside a plughole watching the torrent circle.

Storm coming2

Lightning strikes, sheet mostly, and from all possible directions. The sky is a living thing that roars at us. Nearly the whole expedition huddle under the lecture room roof, save the botany team, who are getting a swimming lesson somewhere out on transect.

Bells, bells, bells! They’re still ringing…

The storm consumes itself, and the sky is given over to night.

Daia church at sundown

Romania: Malancrav – The Woods Today…

June – August 2016

Everyone who’s set up a trail camera has had a ‘what in the name of all wonders is that?!’ moment. Malancrav is up there with the best of them.

It is not that there is no wildlife; we even have a blurry clip of red deer, the largest mammal in Transylvania.

Snapshot_0

And a pine marten puts on a welcome show.

Snapshot_2

It is also one of the few places where I’ve caught a buzzard on a cam.

Snapshot_4

And then the monster strolls by.

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In the mammal book? No. Wikipedia tells me that it is a corb, also known as a Romanian raven shepherd dog, best described as a gigantic, rambling, black St Bernard. It is indigenous to Brasov where it has been driving bears away from cattle for centuries. What it is doing roaming around Malancrav’s outback by itself is a mystery. Romania has a serious stray dog problem that is not only a hazard to people, but also to wildlife – in fact sadly we see one guard dog run down and kill a hare on the outskirts of the village.

The corb is a little strange, but Trailcam 7 wins the prize. I’ve been having arguments with this camera all season; it seems to have some kind of power leakage and is chomping through 10 AA batteries a week. It buzzes, glitters and goes flat. One of my colleagues has kindly offered to leave it in front of a moving bus. But, alas, first it is stolen…by ants.

Snapshot_6

The photograph does not do the crisis justice – there is a video clip on YouTube here.

Gingerly, very gingerly, we put Trailcam 7 into a Ziploc bag, spray it with mosquito repellent – the only weapon at hand – and carry it three miles back to camp.

Thieves, corbs and ants – who would be a trail camera?

But our next stop is the remote village of Daia, where cams keep the royal company of bears.

Romania: Malancrav – Edge of Somewhere

June – August 2016

I think we’ve just tumbled off the edge. Viscri took us close to modernity; Malancrav reminds us that the real world is rural, dusty, and cut over with scythes. The fifth Saxon village of this expedition thumps with Roma music over a background base of barking. Every night, one dog yelps, and the cry is caught by another, and another – the barks bounce around the village like a tennis ball. It’s like listening to a relay team.

Where else can you find a goat inspecting your camp?

Goat in Malancrav

Where else can you mull over both haystacks and graveyards?

Malancrav camp

And where else can you wander out of the farmhouse to spot an aesculapian snake trying to nibble the herpetologist’s arm?

Aesculapian snake

This is only a small aesculapian. Fully grown, they can reach over two metres and count amongst Europe’s largest snakes. They are not venomous.

But I’m ready to be tracking mammals after the difficulties of Viscri. As a point of order, Trailcam 4’s number is not transferred; it retired with the camera’s death, like a famous footballer’s shirt number.

We have a long, long walk through the heart of Malancrav before we even turn off towards the wood. It’s a world of small sights: the well has a huge branch balancing its bucket like a see-saw. A man with a checked shirt is driving a haycart, and pauses to tell us that a cow has been attacked by a bear. Another horse is driven past with yellowish flem dripping from its jaws; its owner shows no mercy. More trusting are tiny puppies – a little girl shows one to us, beaming.

And then there’s the terrier…

Alin and Oscar

We thought we were here to collect data, but, alas, the real reason is to walk this dog. He trots after us for hour upon hour, never doubting that we will bring him safely home.

He takes little interest in his wild neighbours. Here is a footprint from one of the largest: a wild boar.

Wild boar track

And one of the liveliest: a stone or pine marten.

Stone marten track

So we return to base – and it is there that a blonde woman walks up to us, smiling.

In her hand is the stolen camera!

Trailcam 4

She hardly stops long enough to be thanked. Eventually we establish that:

  • shortly after I set Trailcam 4 in Viscri, a poacher came across it. He panicked, thinking it was a police sting operation, and snapped it off the chain.
  • Two days afterwards, he went to a wedding in Viscri, and jovially asked another guest how trail cameras operate.
  • Unluckily for him, this other guest was our host back in Mesendorf.
  • Our local friends in Viscri joined up the dots and ran a SWAT operation to retrieve the camera.

Or something like that. Trailcam 4 is immediately put back to work.

We badly want it to catch a bear after its troubles.

Trailcam 4 RIP

Romania: Viscri – Land of Lost Trailcams

June – August 2016

The peace is superficial. From Viscri’s high ridges, you can see the land folding higher and ever higher into the Carpathians – but something is in the foreground. It has hooves.

Carpathians from Viscri

Livestock explains a lot about Viscri. Modernisation has boosted sheep, perhaps for the wool to knit those socks for tourists. Not only is the sheep / cow ratio skewed, but the actual sheep flocks are also much bigger.

Sheep flock Viscri

More hooves to trample the meadows, and more mouths to eat it. The grass is cropped low with sharply reduced biodiversity. The only exception is within a rusty barbed wire fence: a tiny but gorgeous meadow saved by the local beekeeper for his bees.

Beekeeper meadow

With so few mammals, reptiles take over my surveys. Sand lizards are abundant.

Sand lizard3

Something doesn’t feel right. Wild boar bones litter the wood – someone has been poaching. I’ve got a bad feeling about leaving the trail cameras here.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Viscri has a signpost to Brasov, arguably the most famous flashpoint of human-wildlife conflict in Europe.

Signpost to Brasov

Because we’re about to land fair and square in conflict of our own…

Asking directions

July 15th

The cows are coming home. I can hear them mooing from my room. A less common event in town is the decorating of a gate with conifer branches and balloons. Men were playing eastern-sounding music as they worked. There will be a wedding tomorrow.

July 19th

Dogs. Sheep. East Transect.

The skies are grey with fluctuating patches of blue, painting random lighted patches on the green landscape.

Fluffy cotton wool – or rather, dirty cotton wool. Sheep are dotted on the overgrazed grass in a flock both coherent and borderless.

The track rises swiftly over what might be an esker. What is this? Heads pop up. Heads, heads, heads. Giant dogs burst forth, barking. But the numbers! There are eleven, at least, although I don’t remember counting, and each is the size of an English mastiff or bigger. They flow towards us like an army out of Narnia: white and brown, or grey, or white, with massive St Bernard heads and torn ears. Some are like Spanish mastiffs, but with longer, unkempt coats.

We have no stick. We have no pepper spray.

I don’t make eye contact with the dogs and feel nothing. Time blends into a swirl. So much barking. Occasionally I notice a passing dog with angry eyes and barking jowls – the pack has encircled us. No elk ever brought to bay by wolves was so trapped, but then, elk that stand still are those that survive.

Some while later, the shepherd ambles over. He displays no concern whatsoever. He is perhaps in his forties, with a brimless black hat, an overcoat loose over his shoulders, and a large plastic bottle of something that looks like Pepsi but is probably beer. His dogs release us. We’re out of here.

Trailcams 1, 2, 3 – we ascend the ridge, and grab them. The good news is that one caught a fleeting glimpse of a forest wildcat carrying reptilian prey. We also have a rather cute fox.

Snapshot_0

The bad news is Trailcam 4. A chain dangles sadly from where the camera used to be. It’s now in a poacher’s pocket.

With the surviving cameras and low spirits, we walk on through the wood, trying to find a route home away from the dog pack. With the utmost difficulty, we crawl through dense prickling hawthorn, only to find ourselves dangerously close to the notorious farm with the red roofed barns.

Red roof farm

New problem: cows litter the landscape. Even at four hundred metres, another pack of giant dogs spot us, and come charging, bounding into hedgerows, closer, ever closer. Baskerville would be proud. One – something like a long-haired Anatolian – closes the gap to perhaps 60 metres, barking, barking, barking…

Scratched, exhausted and overheated, we stumble back into camp. Our local friends are horrified to hear that Trailcam 4 has been taken and with an energy that would leave the CID in the dust, they vow to track down the culprit. But there’s nothing more I can do.

Roll on Malancrav. That will be all. :/

Romania: Viscri – Changing Paces

June – August 2016

Something is different; the price to enter the latest fortified church, for starters. Viscri is still very ‘out there’ for a British traveller, but there is a change of tone after three weeks in the remote lanes of Richis and Mesendorf. Viscri has tourists, German mostly, come to celebrate the land of their ancestors, or buy traditional Viscri socks, or pull up on the roadside and ask me directions to Prince Charles’ house.

Yes, he keeps a property here. Somewhere. I am never quite sure which one it is, but the church itself is grand and timeless.

Viscri church

Tourism has not ruined Viscri by any standards, but it has some subtle impact. My routine post-survey survival kit of chocolate and melon-favoured icecream is more expensive here. More seriously, the local farms are sliding towards modernisation, which is already showing signs of throttling Viscri’s biodiversity. I’m expecting to find far less on the transects than in the first three villages.

First, though, I need to explore the village itself. Here puppies greet horses.

The Watching Puppy

And tourists or no, milk is still gathered in the traditional way.

Milk run

Every evening the cows bring themselves home, right home, each turning into her own gate. Swallows swoop over the water provided for livestock right in the centre of town.

Viscri drinking trough

Home for the week is a room, not a tent. I’m staying in one of the many guesthouses, a short walk from the heart of all things: Gerda’s lovely farm. A small army of ducks, geese and guinea fowl wander noisily out of her gate every morning, and back again every night.

Morning at Gerda's

Guarding them is the smallest of watchdogs, and he seems far more interested in playing with the nets used by the butterfly survey team.

Blackie and the butterfly nets

As for wild mammals – one is very close at hand. Livestock and puppy are joined in this farmyard by a wild hedgehog!

Hedgehog

It is a very peaceful hoggie, but causes a taxonomic debate. Officially, there are only eastern hedgehogs Erinaceus concolor here, but this individual, and all others that we’ve glimpsed, are clearly the western species Erinaceus europaeus. The mammal information book has erred.

It remains to be seen what surprises Viscri’s transects will bring.

Romania: Mesendorf – Bear Country

I was 18 years old and in a dusty little jeep when I saw my first wild bear. It was grab-a-blanket kind of cold, as Indian sal forests are on wintry mornings; but Ranthambhore – better known for its Bengal tigers – infused the mood with a tropical vibe. Golden land speckled with trees collapsed into a valley beside us, and on the further ridge a sloth bear waddled by, on some errand known only to itself.

I don’t know how many bears I’ve seen since – hundreds, maybe thousands. Black bears and grizzlies dominated my days in western Canada. They leave their tracks, they smash their trees, and they try to live amidst people who only grudgingly tolerate them.

Grizzly10 110626

This huge male grizzly was in Jasper, Alberta. We’re always looking for a symbol for Wilderness, it seems. Bears are the spirit of mountain and taiga. There is no wilderness without large carnivores, but it doesn’t follow that large carnivores only live in wilderness.

People have now taken over practically all the Earth. If we cannot work out how to conserve wolves and bears in human-dominated landscapes, we will lose them everywhere. No national park is big enough – and some places have plenty of bears without having parks at all…

9th July 2016

There is hope for Europe’s large carnivores, maybe; it depends how you weave this fragile thread of human psychology. It all began this morning – I was standing, Newton-like, under the apple tree on the edge of our orchard-camp, awaiting today’s group. We are plunging into the unknown, where no large mammal survey team has gone before.

Choosing a new transect is an exciting business in a forest where any given track might spit you into a monstrous boggy bramble patch. The Hiking Pole gets a taste of bushwhacking.

But we strike gold.

Bear track at Daia

This is the footprint of a fairly small bear, living and breathing in a working landscape. Full of people, full of bears. Of course, a track is an invitation to take a plaster cast, like we did back in Richis.

Bear cast 270616

There’s no realistic prospect of actually meeting a bear within these rolling forests. They hear us and scatter, leaving the trees as silent witnesses.

Mes woods

So, come evening, we try something else.

Time drifts on. Clouds build into a grey matrix; rain spits, and stops again. I’m joining two university students with A. on a wildlife search tonight. He arrives smartly in a little dark jeep. He’s about forty, with a shaved head and thickset features – and he knows his stuff. We have only been driving for a few minutes when I ask, almost ironically, whether the striped feline sitting in the grass is a domestic cat. It has to be.

Really.

It isn’t.

Wildcat2b

It’s a forest wildcat, one of the rarest and most elusive animals in Europe. It resembles a tabby because it’s related to the ancestor of our pet cats, but genetically is a very different kettle of fish. Scotland calls them Highland Tigers; they’re extinct in England. Untameable, almost mythological, this is the cat that hunted Europe’s forests long before people came to name them.

Romania has one of the most robust wildcat populations still surviving. They are considerably bigger than pet cats, but also be distinguished by their neck stripes, dorsal stripe and, most of all, that thick banded tail.

Wildcat banner

I’m stunned.

Onward, past a crumbling village with brightly painted houses defying rubbish-strewn streets and bricks fallen the spire of a fortified church. Thin children and tiny puppies watch – it feels like India.

A. goes offroad. It seems reasonable. You walk across meadows, you drive across meadows…except I’m not sure I would attempt these slippery grassy hills even on foot. We slide. We roar. We climb. We descend. A. describes my reaction to his driving as ‘interesting’.

We bounce through knee-high grass, yellow and purple flowers within touching distance, wheels churning as we ascend improbably high. The topography is fascinating, deep valleys slicing into the hills like the whorls of a lettuce. We are on a podium, maybe – four human figures entirely encircled by rounded wood-topped hills. The sky laces into an ever more complex tangle of white and grey, and lightning leaps behind it like a small child trying to get a view.

Terrible weather for bears. Clouds break loose and drift beneath the horizon line. Thunder and lightning batter the jeep. A. passes the time by showing us pictures of his Hungarian vizsla dogs, which he uses for truffle hunting. He says the maximum he has made is 180 euro, but the big Italian restaurants sell his truffles for over 1000 euro. He is not happy about it.

Another valley, and the rain is easing. I scan the grass with binoculars – certainly a bear-coloured mound. It lifts its head, and mounds don’t have heads, or long furry ears. My first glimpse of a European brown bear is very short but puts happy context on all the tracks of the last three weeks.

Back in camp, everyone hears about the wildcat immediately, and I’m asked if I was pleased with the drive.

Yes, because I want Europe to retain its wild carnivores. And because maybe there is still hope.

Wildcat3

Romania: Mesendorf – Bats, Maps and Wildcats

June – August 2016

A roe deer woke me last night. Its hoarse barks brought wilderness into the nocturnal chorus of village dogs. Come dawn, we strike tents and board a coach to Crit, pausing within a fortified church with eyes of gold.

Crit Church

Then, we walk, mostly downwards – my knees are glad that the land is flattening. And Mesendorf is the perfection of a Saxon village.

Mesendorf overview2

Camp this week is a pear orchid. Sitting in my tent, I hear horse-drawn carts rattling along the road, their engines neighing at tethered horses on the roadside.

Not far away are the meadows that grow fuel for them.

Flower

Flowers ME

It’s approaching mid-summer, and the hay is ripe for cutting – men with scythes tend to the task. There is a system of land ownership but it is hard to a visitor to grasp. Pointed sticks and boundary stones speak enough to local people.

Cutting the meadows

Above them, woods stand proud and leafy, vast trees shadowing puddles that pop with yellow-bellied toads – one of the few wild species with a logical name.

Yellow bellied toad

But there are far bigger creatures here.

Bear tracks are imprinted on the fallen leaves. Once again the army of trailcams are deployed – I’m happy with their footage so far but it would be exciting to catch a bear as well as the deer and martens.

Even a bear might take a second place to the maker of these footprints. A forest wildcat – striped ghost of the European wild – crossed a stream not long before.

Wildcat tracks

The sun beats hard and insects chirp. Back in the meadows, sheep are roaming…and they’re not alone.

LGD Mesendorf

A livestock guardian dog. They’ve been introduced to North America and South Africa to defuse conflicts between farmers and wild predators, and have proven very successful in keeping both sheep and wildlife alive.

But here in Romania, they cut a different figure. Many are half feral and think nothing of chasing humans as well as bears. The wooden stick dangling from their collars is to deter such adventures – it will knock into his chest if he runs too fast. Officially, the number of dogs per shepherd is restricted, but nobody enforces that law.

This herd at least passes us without incident.

Sheep flock Mesendorf

Down in Mesendorf, we consider the church turret from the perspective of roosting bats.

Mesendorf church2

Tawny owls and beech martens often enter these structures too. The church walls are as thick as a man’s arm and riddled with tiny windows that widen inwards – perfect for shooting arrows at invading Ottomans. Still such a strange thing, this blending of military and spiritual.

Conservation and agriculture is a less controversial mix. As the sun falls over Mesendorf, farmers return to their brightly painted homes, and somewhere out there, a wildcat awakes.

Romania: Nou Săsesc – Wildside

June – August 2016

After a week of sliding up and down impossibly sheer slopes, I am not surprised that so much of Nou Săsesc’s wildlife is winged. Amongst them are middle-spotted woodpeckers – I crossed paths with the bird team one morning, just as they were studying this elegant chiseller of Romania’s trees.

Middle spotted woodpecker

And red-backed shrikes – they’re everywhere, watching for prey. They are songbirds with the heart of hawks.

Red backed shrike RI

The rooftops host special guests. A family of little owls roosts on the farm next to our camp, watching our work between their snoozing.

Little owl NS

And then, of course, there are the hawkmoths.

Hawkmoth NS

Down at ground level, the trail cameras caught a beech marten carrying off a frog.

Marten with frog

Overall, mammal records are low here compared to Richis; and yet, the sense of being away from the over-developed world is still strong. An excerpt from my diary dated July 2nd:

…in the evening, I tag onto the wildlife spotting group, going for a long drive up the same road which we clattered down in the morning. It seems even further in the car. After winding through wonderful hilly scenery, passing livestock and many trees, we stop at a meadow. There are signs of bear diggings on ant hills, and for a brief moment I wonder; but the charm of the evening is the utter absence of human noise. Sitting in the long grass, the world is very alive. Moths fly and bugs buzz, and a bee is being eaten by some species of false widow spider. You could forget the human voice altogether if you spent too long in a valley like this; instead there are roe deer, barking in a hoarse retch. One steps through the new growth of dense trees on the hillside above. Another barks at close range but cannot be detected with the thermal imaging camera. One student sees a fox, and we all observe two red deer bounding away. I spy a glow worm on the way back.

But mostly it is the silence, the sense that nature continues even when humanity forgets it.

This is Romania, land of contrasts.

One night you may be taught by the silence of nature, and the next giddy with rich human culture. The week ends with Romanian dancers and musicians performing in our camp. A video is here.

Next stop: Mesendorf. The land is gentler…but it is also much richer in bears.